The Mailbag: Heeeeere’s Edward

Posted by Michael Getler on

For readers of this column old enough to remember Ed McMahon’s famous nightly introduction of late-night, talk-show host Johnny Carson, this headline may make some sense as a lead in to the appearance last week on the PBS flagship science program, NOVA, of Edward Snowden.

Snowden, as everyone must know by now, is the former CIA employee and government contractor who had access to and leaked huge numbers of highly classified documents from the top-secret National Security Agency (NSA) two years ago and now is living in Moscow. He has been described as everything from a thief and traitor to a heroic whistleblower who has sparked a needed debate about the expansion of secrecy. Should he return to the U.S., he faces charges of violating the Espionage Act and theft of government property.

So it struck a few viewers as odd that Snowden appeared on-screen in NOVA’s Oct. 14 presentation of “CyberWar Threat.” Actually, I was surprised that I only got a couple of letters about this, and I was also surprised to see him on-screen when I watched the program. I should say at the start that I thought this was a very well done and informative program, so that’s not the issue. Snowden is the issue.

Here are the letters, followed by a response from Paula S. Apsell, senior executive producer of NOVA, and some thoughts of mine.

‘Deeply Offended’

Nova has always been a beacon of credibility in science and programming. Tonight I was deeply offended and upset by the episode, "CyberWar." What upset me is that Nova decided to give Edward Snowden, a wanted criminal, spy and espionage suspect, a platform by using him in interview clips and referring to him as "former NSA contractor." Nova and PBS has crossed a line of integrity never before seen--a new low. Edward Snowden is a wanted suspect. How could you put him on any program as any type of expert? He is not some expert with unique insight. He is an admitted spy. I could go on, but I hope you get the idea. I am thoroughly disgusted and disappointed at what you have done.

Robert Meyers, Creswell

~ ~ ~

I just watched a few moments of NOVA this evening and was shocked - truly shocked - to see Edward Snowden on your show about cyber security. I cannot overlook the fact that he stole an unprecedented amount of critical national security information and gave it to both the Chinese and Russian governments, becoming not just a traitor, but the most effective spy the US has ever suffered from. I devoted most of my professional life to working for the public good in support of every level of government. My wife devoted over thirty years of her life working for the defense of our country, including some very uncomfortable time in Afghanistan. Her son spent multiple tours of duty in Iraq and is still paying a heavy price for doing so. And there are thousands of other citizens I've had the privilege of knowing who have, in every walk of life, devoted themselves to furthering all of our well being, as do many millions of others all around us. Every single one of us - and you yourself - has been hurt by Edward Snowden. Barring another just like him, you'll never know just how much of our hard-earned resources were invested in programs and capabilities that were lost due to his treachery. But far worse, we can all sleep much less soundly than we ever should have had to.

Alexandria, VA

NOVA’s Apsell Responds

Thank you for taking the time to write to PBS and to share your thoughts regarding NOVA’s Cyberwar Threat.  The program sought to undertake an unbiased assessment of a critically important issue. We believe that the film can make a positive contribution to the public discourse currently unfolding. There is an ongoing public discussion regarding Edward Snowden and his actions. NOVA is a science series and, as such, does not take a position on Mr. Snowden’s status. However, we felt his perspective on the cyber threat our nation faces constitutes an important part of the story. We are very sorry you were offended by his presence in our program and hope it will not deter you from watching NOVA in the future.

Response Not Accepted

The letter writers did not accept Apsell’s response.

The viewer from Alexandria wrote back to say, in part: “I find it disingenuous of you to ignore my point about the real damage he has caused. The only ‘ongoing public discussion’ about his actions concerns information he exposed concerning activities that may or may not have infringed upon various concepts of US civil liberties. But that is not, ostensibly, what your program was about. There is not any ‘ongoing public discussion’ about the vast majority of the cybersecurity information he gave to other nation states. Nor is there any discussion about the costs we as a nation will be incurring for years to come as a result of his actions.”

Meyers wrote, “Mr. Snowden is personally responsible for an increased cyber threat against our nation. Your other experts interviewed for the program would have told you that had you asked. By including a wanted, confessed thief of USA government secrets as a credible source Nova already has indeed taken a de facto position on his status. ”

My Thoughts

As I said at the outset, I thought this was an important and informative program but two things were jarring right off the bat. One was the appearance of Snowden on screen, unidentified except for his now fairly well-known face, barely one minute into the hour-long program. Other participants were also unidentified in this brief introduction to the program, but Snowden's face jumped out.

Then the documentary started with film clips augmented by animation about a catastrophic failure of a huge hydroelectric plant in Siberia in 2009 “that may foreshadow the future of war.” Seventy-five people were killed. Then we learn that “investigators eventually identify poor maintenance and worn anchor bolts as the cause.” But at first, the narrator tells us, this scenario “led some to wonder if this might be a new kind of sabotage…one that targets the computers.”

So this ultimately informative program got off to a bad, quick, sensationalized start for me: a misleading, eye-catching and animated scene of catastrophe that had nothing to do with cyber warfare and a surprising appearance of an unidentified Edward Snowden.

Snowden does not actually play a large role in this program. He appears on screen four times but only for brief, although useful, explanatory comments about the cyber threat. It is easy, however, to imagine others able to say the same things. After that first appearance, he is identified on-screen by name and only as “former NSA contractor.” The only other contextual reference to him comes about seven minutes into the program when the narrator, discussing how little Americans knew about the NSA, says: “But that all changed in 2013 when whistleblower Edward Snowden walked out the door with a huge cache of top secret documents.” Background graphics provide a glimpse of more context.

But there is no indication anywhere in the program about where Snowden is, whether NOVA actually interviewed him or used old clips. And if this was an interview, where did it take place, when, under what conditions, who carried it out and why did they interview him? Snowden is not just a techie.

The program had a narrator, and an additional line or two about this and some context about the controversy surrounding him would have helped. For anybody following this subject, it seems to me that use of Snowden might give the program some extra zip but also would distract because the program felt no obligation to explain on the air how or why this came to be.

You have to go to the NOVA website to understand. There you will find a transcript of a lengthy and fascinating interview with Snowden in Moscow in June 2014 with James Bamford, a well-known journalist and author who is widely regarded as among the best outside-experts on the NSA, and who is also co-writer of the NOVA program.

As I’ve said a couple of times now, the program is, I thought, quite informative about the new world of cyber threat and warfare. What carries it beyond what one generally understands about today’s cyber environment, also in my opinion, was a lengthy, excellent and detailed report—which is the core of the program—in which the story is told of the amazingly effective, malicious and destructive “Stuxnet” digital worm which was planted in computer programs controlling centrifuges in Iran’s nuclear program, and which, in turn, has spurred a massive cyber-arms race effort here and elsewhere to develop as well as protect against such intrusions.

Toward the end of the program, Snowden has this to say: “Defending ourselves from internet-originated attacks is much, much more important than our ability to launch attacks because when it comes to the internet, when it comes to our technical economy, we have more to lose than any other nation on earth. So we shouldn’t be making the internet a more hostile, a more aggressive territory, we should be making it a more trusted, a more secure environment.”

Posted on Oct. 20, 2015 at 3:32 p.m.

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